JFK air traffic controller on first furlough day: 'Frustrating'

Air traffic controllers David Spitnale,(R) and Robert Moreland work in the control tower at Opa-locka airport on March 4, 2013 in Opa-locka, Fla. Air traffic controllers from JFK to LAX have begun their furloughs, making for long and painful delays, especially flying into and out of the big East Coast airports around New York City.

To the American flying public, our condolences: This is week one of the sequester hitting the not-so-friendly skies.

Air traffic controllers from JFK to LAX have begun their furloughs, making for long and painful delays, especially flying into and out of the big east coast airports around New York City.

Steve Abraham's been an air traffic controller at New York's Kennedy Airport for 23 years. 

"My shift today would have been from 5:30 to 1:3o today," Abraham says, although he wasn't in the tower. Wednesday is his first furlough day.

Abraham was at work Sunday, however, the first day that furloughs for air traffic controllers took effect. 

"We had perfect weather, and ran 2 1/2 to 3 hour delays, which are delays would see on a horrible day," Abraham says. Think snowstorm. "It's no fun being the political football." 

The White House has signaled it would be open to reviewing a standalone bill to restore the FAA's funding, if Congress puts one forward. But for now, controllers like Abraham are getting used to a 10 percent pay cut. 

"It's pretty significant. For me, I guess, the shock is my wife lost her job as of March 15, so it's going to be an interesting summer."

Abraham says the FAA has struggled to keep pace with technological innovation, and it's unlikely that sophisticated systems will replace air traffic controllers in the near future. 

"Trying to separate airplanes in a two-dimensional environment, going from the ramp to a runway, everyone want to be number one," he says by way of example. Then picture jets flying at 500 m.p.h. in all three dimensions. 

Could automated systems handle it? Abraham says, "I don't think we're there yet." 

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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